What problem of tempo? I speed up. The other guys speeds up. No problem!


Joking aside, I admit that maybe once or twice my tempo may have wavered just a little bit. No, I’m not touchy about my tempo… much.  And I’m not the only one: as one musician told me, “I think there something wrong with my biological clock.” Another confided that “I can’t sync with other players. When I play, they have to come to me.”


I heard about a drummer who tried out for a well-known rock band. The producer who was conducting the audition played a recording of one of the band’s tunes on a portable cassette player and asked the drummer to play along. “Keep playing,” the producer said, and left the room, taking the cassette player with him. Several minutes later, he returned to see if the drummer was still in time with the recording. 


You know what a Russian Dragon is, don’t you? It’s a musician who can’t keep a steady tempo. Sometimes he’s rushin’ and sometimes he’s draggin. By the way, that’s a convenient way to divide types of tempo errors: speed-up errors and slow-down errors.


My plan is to describe some common errors of tempo that I have heard about (and maybe committed); in my next entry I’ll begin to describe some psychological findings and theories that might account for them.



Common speed-up errors include


  • speeding up on a solo
  • speeding up when playing louder than before
  • speeding up when increasing the number of pulses per beat (such as from 2 pulses per beat to 3 pulses per beat)
  • speeding up while attempting to play from barely memorized material
  • speeding up while playing at slower-than-average tempos



Slow-down errors include


  • slowing down on music that is physically difficult to play at a very fast tempo
  • slowing down on music that is difficult to sight-read at the appropriate tempo
  • slowing down when playing at faster-than-average tempos
  • slowing down while playing at 5 or 7 pulses per beat



Outlandish claim: I propose that most of the slow-down errors are not so interesting as the speed-up errors. The cause of  slow-downs is often obvious and mechanical: not being able to sight-reading or play a novel, intricate passage up to performance tempo. These “slow-down” errors are not so worrisome because they can be practiced away. For example, if you are not adept at reading music notation, you need to do it more. Think of how you learned to read text. You struggled to match each printed word to a word you already knew, until recognizing words became automatic and effortless. The same goes for woodshedding difficult passages to find the most efficient way to move your fingers. However, some slow-down errors are not mechanical but rather mental, and therefore more interesting, such as when playing somewhat at somewhat fast tempos or long passages at unusual numbers of pulses per beat, such as 5 or 7 pulses per beat. More on these non-mechanical slow-down errors next time.


Now let’s get back to the speed up errors. What about speeding up on a solo? When I ask musicians about this, they often say that they get “excited” when they have to play alone, either from the rush of being the center of attention, or from the fear of embarrassment. If I press them and ask how excitement affects tempo, they look at me like I’m crazy and say, “Obviously, when you get excited, your whole body speeds up. Your heart beats faster, you breathe faster, and yes, you play faster.” But I wonder, does that mean that the only way to keep a steady tempo is to refrain from getting excited? Wouldn’t that make your playing stiff and mechanical? Aren’t there some musicians who can play with spirit and not accidentally speed up on their solos?


What about the second speed-up error: speeding up when playing louder. Thank you, Maurice Ravel, for writing “Bolero”, which is such a great example of a piece of music that is supposed to get gradually louder but not gradually faster. I remember when we played a transcription in high school concert band. Our poor director, Mr. Delwarte had to abort the piece at about the third entrance of the theme to avert a case of terminal bursitis. (I don’t know why, though, us kids in the band were having a blast!) He said we were galloping like a rented horse returning to the stable. After pointing out our error, he raised his baton and said, “Think time!” and we took it from the top.  That was an intriguing suggestion. Is it actually possible to make music without thinking about tempo? I believe it is, and that’s part of the problem.


Moving on, here’s the next error: increasing the tempo when switching from one note per beat to two notes per beat. Sure, your fingers are moving faster, but you’re supposed to keep the beats per minute steady. (This error is even more common when switching from two notes per beat to three notes per beat—that is, from eighth notes to eighth-note triplets). In sum, with an increasing number of notes per beat, there is a tendency for the beats to come just a little faster—to overshoot the target beats per minute. This error reveals a crucial subtlety of tempo: it is in some cases the tempo may seem to be independent of the speed of the notes. Now that’s what I call a problem of tempo! 


My final speed-up error is perhaps the most unexpected—speeding up when attempting to play barely memorized material. The best example of this in my experience occurred in a beginning tabla class taught by Ustad Alla Rakha. About a dozen of us were playing on our tablas as Allaji clapped his hands about once a second and looked on. Our homework was to memorize this theme and a couple of variations. We had all worked very hard that week since we felt so lucky to learn from this illustrious musician, especially as beginners. As we played, the Ustad occasionally frowned and clapped louder or rapped on his drum to keep us from accelerating. When we finished, I felt proud and relieved that I remembered the piece and that we had got through it. At that point, Allaji commented to Harihar Rao (who was at the lessons to translate), that it didn’t sound as though we know it very well. This was a sobering revelation, and also surprising. If musicians don’t know a piece very well, wouldn’t they slow down, just as in sight-reading? What would be the payoff of playing faster than the target tempo if the material was not thoroughly memorized? This is an important clue about tempo.


Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that in most cases the musician who is making these speed-up errors is unaware of it, unless it is pointed out or if they notice after the fact that the tempo has increased. That’s another important clue to the understanding and control of tempo.


Please share with us some of your struggles with tempo by leaving a comment. You don’t have to own up to them yourself—you can start with “A friend of mine…” We’ll understand.


Take care, back in a couple of weeks.


~Jef Feldman




[1] Rack my brain as I might, I cannot recall who told me this story. If it were you, or if you have tempo nightmares of your own, please share, either by emailing me or by commenting at the end of this blog entry.




[2] Urban Dictionary (n.d.) Russian Dragon. Retrieved from Apologies to those readers who are unfamiliar with this jargon. Rushing means speeding up; dragging means slowing down.




[3] Slowing down when sight-reading is not central to our task, which is mainly to understand improvisation.




[4] woodshed means to practice a difficult passage thoroughly until it can be played perfectly, thus avoiding the pain and ignominy of having your teacher take you out to the woodshed to teach you a lesson you’ll never forget.




[5] Motifs of 5, 7, or even 9 pulses per beat occasionally occur in Western art music, but are common in Indian music, especially in south Indian music, where the musician may explore a melodic theme at 5 pulses per beat for minutes at a time, and then shift to 7 pulses per beat, and later at 9 pulses per beat, all the while maintaining a steady beat.


AuthorJef Feldman